Kimberly Daniels, a member of our Emerging Fellows program reviews the history of Heartland power in her third blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Events over the past thirty years have shaped the current geopolitical environment of Eurasia’s Heartland. From the collapse of the former Soviet Union to struggles for influence, power assertion, or empowerment following the Cold War, these events signal high stakes for Russia, the U.S., and China. They inform possibilities for a world-power pivot.
The collapse of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991 ended the Cold War and left Russia trying to expand her influence throughout a fragmented Heartland. As some post-Soviet Eastern European countries pursued new visions of independence, Russia looked back to the former Soviet Empire’s past glory. From the early 1990’s, she organized or joined bilateral regional organizations to promote the security, economic, and or political interests of Eurasian member states. In 2008 and in later years, she supported separatist regions in other Heartland countries to ensure their dependence on her for their economic and political development. In 2014, she annexed Crimea from Ukraine, strengthening Russia’s military influence through uninterrupted access to the Black Sea. Over time, Russia expanded her influence throughout the Heartland, though at the cost of leaving it fragmented.
Winning the Cold War propelled the U.S. forward with momentum to chase an elusive goal of fully asserting her power to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation. She waged a war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001 after the devastating 9/11 attacks on the U.S. She invaded Iraq in 2003 and overthrew Saddam Hussein when he continued to defy U.S. containment strategies intended to stop his ruthless dictatorship. She provided security and economic assistance to Central Asian countries in exchange for access to their military bases and air space. Yet, despite the interventions, containment strategies, and attempts to establish a long-term U.S. military presence in the region, the U.S. fell short of her goal. Unable to leverage the Heartland’s fragmentation for a full power assertion, the U.S. lost much of her influence in the Middle East and in Central Asia.
China’s Cold War pivot away from the former USSR and towards the U.S. empowered China to extend her reach into the Heartland. Aligning her economic interests with the U.S. gave rise to China’s growth from foreign investment and trade. Undeterred by the global financial crisis of 2008, she looked to new possibilities for trading Chinese goods across Afro-Eurasia along a New Silk Road. Through increased investments in foreign infrastructure development, China began improving trade routes. Later, she announced plans for a One Belt One Road international market system or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, revealing a competing interest in the Heartland. The 2015 announcement of her “Made in China 2025” strategic plan further revealed her ambitions for economic growth through technological capabilities. A high-speed rail system, for example, would support the BRI and an empowered China’s extended reach into the Heartland.
Post 20th-Century Cold War, the U.S. faces a high-stakes change in geopolitical power rivalry for the Heartland. Having lost her influence in Central Asia and in the Middle East, the U.S. seemingly has conceded vying for Heartland control. Instead, her focus is on containing Russia and China as these two civilizational states increasingly shape Heartland power. For Russia, it’s a matter of uniting Afro-Eurasia in Eurasian solidarity. For China, it’s a matter of integrating Central Asia and parts of the Middle East into her sphere of influence. Could these and other stakeholders influence a world-power pivot to the Heartland? Any number of possible futures could unfold.